Long considered a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah has gained in significance in recent decades, and not just because, as is popularly believed, that Jews don’t want to feel left out at Christmastime. There has been a growing appreciation for the steadfastness of the Maccabees, and a recognition that all mid-winter holidays share the same primal need: to appreciate the miracle of civilization that makes it possible for us to have light, warmth and companionship during the most brutal and inhospitable season.
Music has always been an integral part of the holiday; enjoy this playlist while spinning a dreidel and enjoying your favorite fried food (use olive oil for maximum authenticity and flavor).
Haneros Haluli, Herb Steiner
This instrumental version of the traditional blessing over the candles, for violin and cimbalom, was recorded in Poland sometime between 1910-1914.
“Moaz Tzur”, the traditional Hanukkah hymn, later transformed into the Christian hymn “Rock of Ages.” The Zamir Chorale of Boston sings four versions—as a traditional liturgical rendition with piano, an a cappella chant, and settings by the 18th century Italian composer Benedetto Marcello and the 20th century cantor Hugo Adler.
¡O! Que Mueves Mezes, Loren Pomerantz
This lovely Sephardic song about anticipating childbirth ponders the miracles in our everyday lives, an important theme of Hanukkah. The sparkling dulcimer sounds like flickering candles.
Salamone Rossi: Sonata quarta sopra l'aria di Ruggiero
Salamone Rossi is frequently cited as one of the most important Jewish composers, but that underestimates his significance in music history, which was comparable to the greatest of his gentile contemporaries. He is credited with inventing the trio sonata, perhaps the defining form of Baroque instrumental composition, which in turn paved the way for the concerto grosso and the string quartet. This selection from his third book of trio sonatas, published in 1613, uses a repeating harmonic pattern that gradually speeds up; by the final variation the effect is like a musical depiction of a spinning dreidel.
Judas Maccabaeus, George Frederic Handel
During Handel’s lifetime, and for the two centuries following his death, Judas Maccabaeus, still the only major musical depiction of the Hanukkah story, was a serious rival to Messiah as his most popular oratorio. The overtly militaristic nature of the work was both the reason for its popularity and the reason for its decline in popularity in recent years, but it’s still undeniably entertaining and stirring. For this playlist I’ve chosen three selections from two very different recordings. The first is Judah’s call to arms, the aria with chorus “Sound the Alarm”, in a performance from the 1960s by a Jewish hero of more recent times, the legendary tenor Jan Peerce, the son of Polish immigrants, who rose from humble beginnings on Manhattan’s Lower East Side to become a celebrated operatic tenor and popular singer who never forgot his roots and often spent his Saturday mornings singing in synagogues. It’s a very old-fashioned recording, but Peerce’s cantorial passion is thrilling.
The second selection, from a more recent recording on period instruments, is an aria that specifically refers to the holiday ritual: “Father of Heav’n! From Thy eternal throne,/Look with an eye of blessing down,/While we prepare with holy rites,/To solemnize the feast of lights.” The third is a group of three numbers that celebrate the hero’s triumphant return: the choruses “See the conqu’ring hero comes” and “Sing unto God,” with an instrumental march between them.
Twelve Variations in G major on “See the conqu’ring hero comes” from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus, Ludwig van Beethoven
If you listened to the previous selections, then the tune that’s still going through your head is “See the conqu’ring hero comes.” Fifty years after Judas Maccabaeus had its premiere, Beethoven, who considered Handel the greatest composer of all time, wrote these variations on the unforgettable tune in 1796 at the same time as his first two groundbreaking cello sonatas for the Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm II, himself an accomplished cellist, which may well have inspired Beethoven to cast the cello in the role of a hero and leader of his people.
Beethoven was the first composer to treat the cello and piano as equal partners; as you hear the two instruments both have their own turns at the theme in its various permutations, it’s hard to appreciate just how revolutionary it was, because Beethoven makes this combination sound like the most natural thing in the world.
Drey Dreydele, Moishe Oysher
Moishe Oysher, a cantor and Yiddish theater actor, wrote the lyrics to “Drey Dreydele” set to an ancient tune. Notice the way the melody and words are constructed so that the voice seems to spin like a dreidel.
The first verse translates roughly as “Oh, bring me bread and bring me wine, Let’s all be happy, I already have the latkes and fish, the menorah is shining proudly, every flame has a thousand souls.”
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